Dr. George Lipsitz is Professor of Black Studies and Sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He is the author of eleven books including THE FIERCE URGENCY OF NOW (with Daniel Fischlin and Ajay Heble) and HOW RACISM TAKES PLACE. Dr. Lipsitz is senior editor of the comparative and relational ethnic studies journal KALFOU, editor of the Critical American Studies series at the University of Minnesota Pres and co-editor of the American Crossroads series at the University of California Press. Dr. George Lipsitz is active in struggles for fair housing and educational equity. In 2013 he was awarded the Angela Y. Davis Prize for Public Scholarship in American Studies.
It is the last week of classes at the university where I teach in the Department of Black Studies. Students are anxious about the term papers they are writing and the exams they will take next week. There is a long line of students who wish to meet with me outside my office. They want some last minute consultations to make sure that they are on track, that they understand what we have been studying, that they are prepared to do well as the course ends. I meet with one after another. Some have nothing to worry about. The very sense of responsibility that brings them to my office to talk has held them in good stead. They will do well in the course. Others have genuine cause for concern. They have not kept up with the reading and missed too many lectures. They are trying to cram an entire term’s worth of work into the last two weeks. They will probably not do well in the course, but I am determined to take them as far as they can go, to help them learn as much as they can in the short time we have left. Our conversations take anywhere from ten minutes to a half hour. One student leaves the office and then another walks in.
In the midst of these consultations, a white student I do not recognize walks in. He has been waiting patiently in line for an hour. He explains that he is not enrolled in any of my classes. In fact, he has never taken any Black Studies courses. He explains, he wants to speak with me, however, because he was walking down the hallway, noticed that our department is called Black Studies, and he wants to let me know that he thinks there should not be a Black Studies department. “I don’t see race at all. I don’t care what color people are,” he says. “It doesn’t matter to me if you are Black, white or purple.”
I tell him that I think he is very fortunate that our department exists, that he would gain tremendously from taking some of our courses. No one was made a slave because they were purple, I explain, but millions of people were enslaved because they were Black. No one was ever been denied a job, a loan, a place to live, or a decent education because they were purple, but millions have been discriminated against because they were Black. No one has been more likely to live close to a toxic waste dump, breathe polluted air, or eat fish poisoned by mercury because they were purple, but millions of people have faced those conditions because they were Black. No one who is purple inherits family wealth that was built originally on the unfair gains and unjust enrichments of slaveholding, housing discrimination, or the subsidies that were channeled almost exclusively to whites by the openly discriminatory policies of the 1862 Homestead Act and the 1934 Federal Housing Act, but millions of whites inherit wealth for precisely those reasons. No one gets access to better neighborhoods, better schools, better living conditions, better medical care, better treatment by the police and the courts, better loans, and better insurance policies because they are purple, but white people get these unearned advantages every day.
We have a cordial but generally unproductive conversation. He tells me that racism used to be a problem in the past, but race no longer matters today at a time when Obama is president and Oprah is rich. He argues that affirmative action is unfair to whites and is an example of reverse racism. I ask him how there can be reverse racism, but no racism, how he knows that whites are oppressed by affirmative action if he doesn’t even notice whether people are white, Black or purple? He tells me he’ll think about it and get back to me. I shake his hand and encourage him to take a Black Studies course before he graduates.
But I wonder about why he wanted to talk with me, and why he waited patiently to do so. I doubt that is standard procedure for him. I cannot imagine that he wanders into the engineering school and tells professors there that he does not know that he thinks they care too little or too much about the impact of their work on the environment, that it occurs to him on passing by faculty offices in the biology department to ask their inhabitants if work on the human genome project unwittingly promotes regressive understandings of race or if he uses office hours in religious studies to share his anxieties about the potential misuses of the sacred. His decision to talk to me seems to manifest something singular, something I have seen many times before: a desire to quell the disturbance of race.
Fear more than confidence motivates the student’s approach to me. It is not that he thinks that race does not matter, but he recognizes that it matters to other people in ways that threaten him. If the question of race is opened up, many aspects of his life might be susceptible to challenges. Because he is unprepared to engage that disturbance he prefers, that it not be raised at all. But of course, the disturbance of race does not go away if it is repressed. Racism and its effects do not disappear if we do not talk about them. They only become more significant and therefore more threatening.
I cannot blame the student for what he does not know. The educational system, the entertainment industry, the corporate media, and the three main branches of government all bear some responsibility for his confusion and frustration. He not only does not know basic facts about the society in which he lives, he has been primed to defend himself against the sites that might give him that knowledge. Many students like him — and not all the students like him are white — have wound up in my courses over the years. They are there because they need to fill some campus requirement, because my class meets at a time or day that is convenient for them, because they imagine that doing well in a course in Black Studies merely requires them to demonstrate a modicum of sympathy or pity. But once the class begins, things change. We diffuse the disturbance of race not by evading it, but by addressing it directly.
I don’t preach but I do teach. More precisely I try to assign readings and construct assignments that enable students to see things for themselves and make up their own minds about whether race matters and to what degree. I assign them readings from primary and secondary sources and construct project-based exercises that ask them to solve concrete problems – to file a friend of the court brief in a discrimination case, to design a course of study for high school students, to write a policy brief advising a public official about inequalities in housing, health, education, employment or transportation. Most of them discover that invocations of post-racialism cannot successfully address the skewing of opportunities and life chances along racial lines, that color blind remedies cannot solve color bound problems.
In the course of their research and writing, my students discover things that are new to many of them. They find that white job applicants with a criminal record are more likely to get job offers than equally qualified Blacks without a criminal record.[i] They discover that whites with advanced graduate degrees earn nearly four times as much as Blacks with the same credentials.[ii] They see that for every dollar that whites earn, Blacks make sixty-two cents, [iii] that the Black unemployment rate is generally twice as high as the white unemployment rate. They discover that one out of every three Blacks lives in poverty but only one out of every ten whites is poor,[iv] that only 26 percent of white children grow up in asset poor households, compared to 52 percent of Black children and 54% of Latino children.[v] They learn that family inheritances and owning homes in segregated neighborhoods give middle class whites three to five times as much wealth as Blacks with the exact same incomes,[vi] that in 2009, white households had a median wealth twenty times greater than the median wealth of Black households and eighteen times greater than the median wealth of Latino households.[vii] They frequently discover the 2010 study by the Institute on Assets and Social Policy at Brandeis University that found that the already large wealth gap between whites and Blacks has not only not diminished over the years, but that it quadrupled between 1984 and 2007.[viii] They learn that minority children begin their educations in lower quality schools than white children do, that they are relegated to larger classes taught by less credentialed teachers, and that they have fewer opportunities to take college preparation courses, have fewer counselors, and less access to computer equipment. They learn that racial stratification is real and cannot be wished away. They learn that not mentioning race does not make racism disappear, it only makes it harder to challenge it. But many of them also come to see that addressing racism as a practical problem that all of us can help solve quells the disturbance of race and helps us replace it with the dignity and purpose that comes from participating in shared social projects with people from diverse backgrounds that oppose subordination and in the process promote new affiliations, alliances, identifications and identities.
[i] . Devah Pager, “The Mark of a Criminal Record,” 2003 American Journal of Sociology v.108 n.5 (March), 2003, 937-975
[ii] . Melvin Oliver, and Thomas Shapiro, Black Wealth, White Wealth: a new Perspective on Racial Inequality (New York; Routledge, 2006), 27
[iii] . Ajamu Dillahunt, Brian Miller, Mike Prokosch, Jeanette Huezo, and Dedrick Muhammad, State of the Dream 2010: Drained, Jobless, and Foreclosed in Communities of Color (Boston: United for a Fair Economy, 2010), v-vi
[iv] ; Melvin Oliver, and Thomas Shapiro, Black Wealth, White Wealth: a new Perspective on Racial Inequality (New York; Routledge, 2006), 26-27
[v] . Thomas Shapiro, The Hidden Cost of Being African American: How Wealth Perpetuates Inequality (New York: Oxford, 2005), 40
[vi]. Melvin Oliver and Thomas Shapiro, Black Wealth, White Wealth: a new Perspective on Racial Inequality (New York; Routledge, 2006),26-27
[vii] . Rakesh Kochhar, Richard Fry, and Paul Taylor, “Wealth Gaps Rise to Record Highs Between Whites, Blacks and Hispanics,” Pew Research Center Publications. July 26, 2011. www.pewresearch.org/…/housing-bubble-subprime-mortgages-hispancis-blacks-household-wealth-disparity. Accessed July 14, 2012.
[viii] .Thomas M. Shapiro, Tatjana Meschede, and Laura Sullivan, “The Racial Wealth Gap Increase Fourfold,” Research and Policy Brief, Institute on Assets and Social Policy, Heller School for Social Policy and Management, Brandeis University, 2001), 1-3. Accessed on June 5, 2010 from www.IASP.Brandeis.edu/pdfs.racial-wealth-gap-brief.pdf